Pressing buttons to collect coins, defeat invading space aliens, or save a pixelated princess from an evil castle probably isn’t on your to-do list for today. Video games are often considered frivolous: They’re fun, yes — but spending your time this way isn't exactly productive, right? Actually, as it turns out, playing video games in your adult life can be good for your brain, contributing to improved memory and slowed cognitive decline. Here's why you should pick up a controller and claim a real-life win.
What counts as a video game?
Video games come in many shapes and forms. We aren't just talking about those that need an expensive console you plug into your TV. Those are video games, but so are the free puzzle games you play on your cell phone while you wait in line at the DMV, and so is the Solitaire you play on your computer to pass the time. The realm of video games is so vast that people of all experience levels and ages can enjoy them, regardless of the equipment they do or don't have. In fact, 2021 research shows that 42 percent of people aged 56-65 had played video games in the previous six months, and more than half of that number — 53 percent — were women. Overall, the study determined 10 percent of the group’s leisure time was spent on gaming. So if you’re wondering what a gamer looks like, you may just need to look in the mirror.
Studies on Video Games and Brain Health
You may have heard about video games’ ability to improve hand-eye coordination. But an even more compelling reason to play video games is their potential for improving cognitive health. Researchers conducting a study in 2020 recruited individuals between the ages of 60 and 80 to play Super Mario (a three-dimensional game played on a gaming console), and Angry Birds, (a two-dimensional mobile game). Participants played these games for 30-45 minutes a day for four weeks; at the two-week mark, researchers found that their recognition memory — memory that involves recall of previously observed events, people, and situations — had improved dramatically. During the next two weeks, Super Mario players’ memories improved even more. (Given both types of gameplay had a positive effect on adult memory, you've no need to feel guilty about gaming on your phone.)
Another study from the University of Iowa showed that participants aged 50-65 slowed cognitive decline by up to four years by playing a simple video game on their home computers for two hours a week over five weeks. The game, called “Road Tour,” required players identify cars they were shown for a short amount of time among quickly moving images. Those who played the game for 10 hours improved their cognitive health by three years, and those who played an additional four hours gained an extra year of improvement. If you want to learn more about this game, now called “Double Decision,” and see a demo, visit the developer’s website.
What video games should I try?
There are a host of video games available on the market, and they range in price from free to expensive. Some of them require video game consoles, like the PlayStation, Xbox, or Nintendo Switch to play, while others require nothing but an internet connection and a computer or a cell phone. They also range in difficulty/excitement levels — so if you prefer tending virtual gardens in colorful villages over gunning down opponents in a high-stakes scenario, there are still plenty of games for you to enjoy. Because console games differ in availability, I’m going to recommend some options for mobile and computer gaming.
On your phone:
Crossy Road: With colorful graphics, fun characters, and simple gameplay, Crossy Road is a frogger-style game in which you try to help your character —a chicken — cross a busy road. We still don’t know why the chicken crossed the road, but we can at least establish how. This game is free to download on the App Store for iOS and Google Play for Android.
Hidden Folks: This game is like a modern-day Where’s Waldo, but made even more difficult, because it’s in black and white. Hidden Folks shows you the “folk” you are to find and gives you a small hint about where they may be hidden. You’re then shown funny, charming, doodle-esque environments with a multitude of activities and people, the goal being to find your hidden folk among them. This game is $4.99 on the App Store for iOS and $1.49 on Google Play for Android.
Monument Valley: This award-winning puzzle game was designed to be as beautiful as it is entertaining. In Monument Valley, you help your character, Ida, navigate beautiful and intricate three-dimensional structures and optical illusions inspired by artist M.C. Escher. The puzzles pair with a story of forgiveness to create an emotionally and cognitively stimulating experience you won’t soon forget. Monument Valley is available for $3.99 on the App Store for iOS and Google Play for Android.
On your computer:
You can download Steam, a platform that allows you access just about any computer game that's been released lately, including free independent games and more costly mainstream games. But there are also several websites out there that allow you to play games online at no cost.
Arkadium: This website has several free-to-play games, like Mahjongg, crosswords, and sudoku. You may have to watch advertisements to play them for free, but it looks like you don’t have to create an account to play many games.
Mind Games: Like Arkadium, this website has a lot of free-to-play games like word searches, solitaire, memory games, and more. You can subscribe to play without ads, but you can also play for free if you’re willing to sit through them.
These are just a few of the available options for fun, brain-boosting games. Explore some websites, as well as the app store on your phone, and figure out what kind of games you like to play. You could be taking your brain health to the next level in the process.